The confirmation hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education has been delayed until next Tuesday, January 17 at 5:00 PM. That hearing had been scheduled to begin this morning, but it was delayed after Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the committee, demanded the postponement in hopes that the Office of Government Ethics can complete its review of the finances of Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Michigan-based philanthropist.
As the Congress and the press explore the complicated financial records of Betsy DeVos and her husband, it is becoming clear that the delay will make it possible not only for the Senators who are responsible for considering DeVos’s nomination but also for the public to learn more about the person Trump has nominated to oversee the nation’s public schools.
Several Senate Democrats including Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown are using the postponement to renew their demand that, before her hearing, Betsy DeVos pay fines accruing from 2008 to the Ohio Elections Commission. Her All Children Matter PAC, a group that has pretty much shut down, still owes the Ohio Elections Commission $5.3 million in unpaid fines imposed by the Commission when All Children Matter’s national PAC illegally laundered contributions from Ohioans that exceeded Ohio’s legal limits back through its Ohio affiliate to Ohio politicians.
Yesterday the editorial board of the NY Times raised serious ethical concerns: “As the Senate races forward with confirmation hearings this week, the spottiest disclosures have come from wealthy private-sector nominees with no governing experience and many potential conflicts. In other words, the people most in need of a complete ethics review. Exhibit A is Betsy DeVos, a billionaire and education lobbyist… Ms. DeVos’s finances are a tangle that could take weeks to investigate… People who have seen her financial disclosures so far say that Ms. DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, have investments in some 250 companies registered to a single Grand Rapids, Mich., address…. Already… there are reports that the DeVoses are indirect investors in Social Finance Inc., a private company that refinances student loans. Private lenders like Social Finance are banned from most of the direct student lending market; their lobbyists have already written to the Trump transition team pitching to change that….”
The editorial continues: “Ms. De Vos also faces a big challenge in explaining the damage she’s done to public education in her home state, Michigan. She has poured money into charter school advocacy, winning legislative changes that have reduced oversight and accountability. About 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit companies, far higher than anywhere else. She has also argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out as vouchers…. In that city, charter schools often perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes worse.”
Yesterday’s NY Times editorial followed reporter Noam Scheiber’s blockbuster exploration of not only the DeVos’s lavish and complicated financial and lobbying record but also their ruthless political tactics: “In announcing his intention to nominate Ms. DeVos, Mr. Trump described her as a ‘brilliant and passionate education advocate.’ Even critics characterized her as a dedicated, if misguided, activist for school reform. But that description understates both the breadth of Ms. DeVos’s political interests and the influence she wields as part of her powerful family. More than anyone else who has joined the incoming Trump administration, she represents the combination of wealth, free-market ideology and political hardball associated with a better-known family of billionaires: Charles and David Koch… Like the Kochs, the DeVoses are generous supporters of think tanks that evangelize for unrestrained capitalism, like Michigan’s Acton Institute, and that rail against unions and back privatizing public services, like the Mackinac Center. They have also funded national groups dedicated to cutting back the role of government, including the National Center for Policy Analysis (which has pushed for Social Security privatization and against environmental regulation) and the Institute for Justice (which challenges regulations in court and defends school vouchers.) Both organizations have also received money from the Koch family.”
Scheiber continues: “Indeed, the DeVoses’ education activism, which favors alternatives to traditional public schools, appears to derive from the same free-market views that inform their suspicion of government. And perhaps more than other right-wing billionaires the DeVoses couple their seeding of ideological causes with an aggressive brand of political spending. Half a dozen or more extended family members frequently coordinate contributions to maximize their impact. In the 2016 cycle alone, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the family spent roughly $14 million on political contributions to state and national candidates, parties, PACs and super PACs.”
Scheiber quotes Jeffrey Winters, a Northwestern University political scientist, describing Betsy DeVos: “She is the most emblematic kind of oligarchic figure you can put in a cabinet position. What she and the Kochs have in common is the unbridled use of wealth power to achieve whatever political goals they have.”
Organizations that work on behalf of the public interest are also weighing in. On Monday of this week the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 200 national organizations, wrote to members of the U.S. Senate to explain the concerns of its member organizations: “All parents… in this country—a majority of whom are of color or are low-income—want the best education, support and dignity for their own children. We stand with them and cannot support a nominee who has demonstrated that she seeks to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and public education itself… We reject the notion that children are well served by the dismantling of a public school system that serves 90 percent of all American students or by the elimination of civil rights protections that require the federal government to intervene when students are discriminated against.”
The Leadership Conference’s letter continues: “While parent frustration with schools failing to meet their child’s needs is real and parents have waited far too long for meaningful action by policy makers, the result of anti-public education agendas such as DeVos’ has often, as in Louisiana, been worse outcomes for vulnerable students. The Michigan example, where DeVos’ impact on education policy and the proliferation of unregulated and for-profit charter schools is considerable, demonstrates clearly that this agenda does not result in the improved outcomes students, parents, and communities deserve.”
The Leadership Conference concludes with a reminder that a primary responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education is through its Office of Civil Rights: “While she (Betsy DeVos) is entitled to her personal views as a private citizen, government officials are charged with enforcing our laws equally… The U.S. Department of Education is responsible for implementing and enforcing laws protecting students from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and disability, and those laws that provide for educational opportunity from early childhood through graduate school. The person responsible for leading that department must absolutely be committed to respecting, valuing and protecting every single student in this country—without regard to LGBTQI status, family income, race, home language, gender, religion, disability, or immigration status. Our nation’s laws, economy, future and children deserve no less.”